Bus services in Leeds on 'cliff edge' as fares set for another hike

Regional transport chiefs have warned bus services in West Yorkshire are looking at a “cliff edge”, as funding uncertainty could force operators into cancelling services altogether in the coming months.

By Richard Beecham
Saturday, 8th January 2022, 11:45 am

A senior Leeds city councillor has called on the Government to step in and further subsidise the “broken” public transport model across the country, claiming fares are currently so expensive that low paid workers were effectively spending a month’s worth of wages on travel every year.

It follows a report from West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) officers, which said the Government’s bus recovery fund, which subsidises services suffering from post-Covid drops in passenger numbers, is set to end in March.

A meeting of WYCA’s transport committee heard how the Government’s vaguery on whether this funding would continue has made it difficult for bus companies to plan financially, and could jeopardise some services in the region.

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Regional transport chiefs have warned bus services in West Yorkshire are looking at a “cliff edge”, as funding uncertainty could force operators into cancelling services altogether in the coming months.

Head of the committee Coun Kim Groves said the combined authority did not support any fare increases to offset this.

She added: “Even before the increases, people found the fares were too high anyway. For what they’re earning, there is going to be increases in energy and food costs, so it’s going to get harder.

“The Government has to step in because this is a broken model.

“They have subsidised London for years, and now they tell us that model doesn’t work, that they have to withdraw 100 routes and hike up fares down there. If they want to help people and attract more people, it’s going to have to be a lower flat fare right across the country.

“Transport is the solution to so many policy objectives, and the Government is going to have to start taking this seriously.

“People on low incomes, if you do the sums, they only earn 11 months’ pay, because the other month is spent on transport.”

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Financial support for bus operators, known as bus recovery funding, has been available during the past few months as services suffered hits to passenger numbers.

However, the extra cash is set to run out in the spring and, as the Omicron variant continues to spread, experts say it is unlikely bus passenger numbers in the region will fully recover any time soon.

Earlier this week, the Department for Transport has said it is discussing the issue with bus operators to see what help is needed, but stopped short of committing to extra funding beyond March.

Senior WYCA officer Dave Pearson told the meeting: “We are looking at a cliff-edge when it comes to funding into buses. That brings some concern – the bus companies are flagging the fact that when we wrote this back in the autumn. The optimistic view back then was that patronage would get back to 80 percent of previous levels by the end of march. That is even more optimistic now because of the latest wave of the pandemic.

“Government hasn’t said it will continue funding beyond march and bus companies have no certainty, they can’t do any meaningful financial planning for the coming year.

“There is a real risk now that the bus network shrinks just at the time when we are embarking on a plan to improve it.”

Committee chair and Bradford Council leader Susan Hinchcliffe said: “People need to know this is council tax money that is going on buses. The government really (has) no plans for the future of how the buses are going to be subsidised, and that is a real concern.

“We have prices increasing across the country for all sorts of services, and buses are forecasted to go up. For the cost of living, that is really, really serious, and I would urge government to continue that subsidy at a similar level to help people get about and get to work.”

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